Congress

With impeachment churning, Modernization panel urges civility

Ex-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood suggests leaders plan bipartisan retreat and weekly dinners

Modernization committee leaders Derek Kilmer, right, and Tom Graves say their panel “has set a new standard for collaboration on Capitol Hill.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As impeachment and partisan politics rage on Capitol Hill, one congressional panel spent Thursday morning brainstorming ways to promote civility and collaboration among lawmakers.

The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress almost seemed like it inhabited an alternate Congress from the one where, at the same time, Speaker Nancy Pelosi outlined plans for an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump and the House Intelligence Committee probed a whistleblower complaint central to that effort.

Despite the apparent disconnect, the Modernization panel — a one-year, bipartisan project aimed at updating Congress and making it function better — may prove necessary amid increasing turmoil on Capitol Hill, committee members and witnesses said.

“Fight the idea that this is a quaint committee,” Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, told the panel. “Congress is under siege, in rooms all around here. The ability of Congress to handle these traumas and not break depends on this committee. So you should be talking about this committee in the context of surviving an impeachment.”

Former Rep. Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican who served as Transportation secretary during the Obama administration, cautioned against impeachment. LaHood served in the House during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998.

“Impeachment is probably the most controversial, volatile thing,” he said. “It’s going to turn this place upside down. I would avoid it like the plague. … This place will never be the same.”

[House modernization leaders seek consensus despite hurdles]

LaHood also urged the panel to plan a bipartisan retreat, and he suggested that Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy should convene small weekly bipartisan dinners. Fundraisers should halt on those evenings, he added.

It's unclear whether such ideas may make it to fruition. The Modernization panel does not have the authority to move legislation, but House leaders have tasked it with making recommendations.

One member of the committee, South Carolina Republican William R. Timmons IV, made a public pitch for leaders to extend the panel beyond this year, something he said was under consideration.

“Civility is the pathway to solving our big problems,” Timmons said.

Other proposals to bring more civility and collaboration to Capitol Hill included restoring earmarks, or member-directed spending, to help give lawmakers more bargaining power in their negotiations with one another.

“A hearing about civility might feel like we’re going against the grain a little bit this week, but the Select Committee has already set a new standard for collaboration on Capitol Hill,” the panel’s chairman, Washington Democrat Derek Kilmer, and vice chairman, Georgia Republican Tom Graves, said in a joint statement. “The topic of civility always finds its way into our discussions, and the witnesses today presented concrete solutions for Congress to adopt and for us to echo as we work to improve the legislative branch.”

LaHood, a senior adviser at the law and lobbying firm DLA Piper, said a bipartisan retreat could lead to legislative accomplishments on infrastructure, immigration and spending bills. “People are clamoring for this,” he said.

[Congressional compensation: Isn’t there a select committee for that?]

Jennifer Nicoll Victor, a professor of policy and government at George Mason University, said the nation’s rising income inequality and the current campaign finance system have helped to drive polarization.

Victor also said that in eliminating earmarks, “we’ve eliminated one of the key things that members of Congress can bargain over.”

“Congress is a victim of a cancerous phenomenon,” she added, recommending that lawmakers organize more bipartisan working groups and trainings for staff.

She also suggested that committees change their seating charts. Currently, members of each party sit together on one side of a hearing room. The Modernization panel is an exception: its members regularly sit interspersed as they did Thursday.

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